Next Stop, Chattanooga

For much of the world, the idea of the local derby is obvious. Some cities have clubs who represent specific boroughs, or neighborhoods. In those cities, each of those clubs has a separate identities, which makes them stand out from each other as distinct entities. This can come through their differing histories or experiences, their respective geographies, or even their colours. Even in cases where rivals share a stadium – which is not always that uncommon in some parts of the world – these identities are carefully cultivated. If nothing else, they’re good for business.

In the US, however, this isn’t the norm. Perhaps it’s a matter of geography or the fact that association football has never been the number one sport here in comparison with other sports. It might even be related to the franchise system that has been used in both the NASL and in MLS. In the US, though, usually the only time you’ll see multiple clubs within the same city limits is if that club has a reserve side playing in the USL Championship, and a academy side playing in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) or USL League Two. Beyond that, you rarely encounter cities where you have two, distinct, independent clubs operating. And in some cases, you find that cities where clubs have already established themselves as the only club in the distrct, a status that those clubs are loathe to give up.

In some ways, this play can out as something resembling a form of class divide. On one side of the fence, you have smaller clubs. Clubs who have worked long and hard to establish their presence, their role in the community, and their culture. Traditionally established as a lower league club, they tend to rely heavily on word of mouth and social media to advertise their existence on account of their ready availability and low cost. On the other side of this divide, however, you have the arrivistes, clubs who come in with money, seeking to establish themselves in a city or district. When money is involved, of course, it usually takes the form of the establishment of a professional club. A club who, by the force of the names behind it, throw money at advertising, and other forms of PR, with the intention of creating a buzz that a smaller club simply cannot match with its available resources.

Right now, if you looked at my Twitter feed, for example, you’d see the big buzz involves Chattanooga Football Club and the Chattanooga Red Wolves. Chattanooga FC are in their eleventh year of operation and have been the spearhead behind the push for the NPSL to adopt professionalism. This was a move designed to counter the perceived interloping of the Chattanooga Red Wolves, who are slated to play their inaugural season in USL League One this coming spring.

Chattanooga, the fourth biggest city in Tennessee, is better known to an international audience for it’s “choo-choo”, but it is also a city which I would consider to be a hotbed of football in the US. Chattanooga FC has been national runners-up in the NPSL four times. They have, on multiple occasions, drawn more than ten thousand spectators to their home ground, Finley Stadium, for marquee matches. One of those being the 2015 NPSL championship match, at which they set an amateur football attendance record. It is a city with a passionate, dedicated supporter base.

To that supporter base, as well as those of many of Chattanooga FC’s peers, the Chattanooga Red Wolves are opportunistic invaders. A professional club designed to pull attention and money away from Chattanooga FC, up to and including trying to rent Finley Stadium to be their home ground. To the Chattanooga FC supporters, and their friends, this was the gravest of insults. However, it also appears to be the catalyst for pushing Chattanooga to innovate, creating a ripple effect across the non-league landscape, including the appointment of a new director of International Community Outreach at the club earlier this week.

By pushing for the establishment of NPSL Pro in the first place, Chattanooga now has two teams that can be considered professional. Two clubs who may well ultimately push each other further in the proverbial arms race that is local football, in order to better each other. The arrival of the Red Wolves has already also pushed Chattanooga FC to move into supporter investment as a means of helping push forward with turning professional themselves. Professionalism is likely to push both teams towards further engaging in local, and even global, football communities, which is likely to raising the profiles of both teams as well as that of the city itself. In this case, co-existence could work very well for both Chattanooga FC and the Chattanooga Red Wolves, even if those who follow the incumbent team may well not feel that way at present.